INTERVIEW BY DAVE HIMELFIELD
I meet with Joe Pernice is the back corridors of Manchester University Student Union. He’s unshaven, tired looking and apparently confused picking random conversations with anybody who walks past. His tour manager has asked me to bring a bottle wine. Usually the job of the venue is to cater for a band’s so I wonder if this is a joke. His peculiar behaviour on the way up to the office seems to consolidate this. Could it be the stress and tedium of the tour of the eccentric, impenetrable personality of a musical master? One who marries dark articulate lyrics to some of the shiniest, pop melodies of late; classic in every sense. I consider placating an oddball whim with one of my own and now sat down in the office I produce two bottles of unconventionally titled beer – “Old Fart” and something with an equally curious title that I forget. Joe seems grateful and more so, surprised. Apparently he knows nothing about the request for wine. Sat and conversed with Joe Pernice through the layers of travel fatigue one feels a sense of warmth and stoic wisdom. To wit, any notions of unfathomable foibles are unfounded.
Despite the aforementioned fatigue there’s a determination to keep the machines moving. Joe was married in August 2003 and has still yet to have his honeymoon. The tour fell apart last year but he’s back again. I ask Joe about the rumours of the Pernice Brother’s possible dissolution and Joe is taken aback.
“God, no! We’re making another record this summer. I hope.
The Pernice Brothers have long enjoyed a cult status in Britain and indeed America. Joe accounts this to being an independent body separate from the formula plugging music business. He accounts his cult following due to the band’s lack of fashion credentials and the traditional organic way of gaining support.
“I don’t think what we do is the exactly most fashionable thing. The music business likes to plug formulas. We don’t fit it. Our attack is very different. Just to go and play. It takes longer to build a following like that.”
With English indie labels in various states of progress or the lack of I ask if their American counterparts echo this. Again it seems that across the pond in what seems like an equally entrenched and dismal climate there’s are still plenty of sunny spots.
“The American indie label scene at the moment is alive. There’s a lot going on. The major labels you can’t get near. You have a formula and you stick to it and they’re not willing to take a lot of chances. The indie scene in the states is pretty vibrant. There are quite a few labels. I think it’s cyclical. They’ve been putting out some pretty good records, now. But music…you can’t predict it. You can have string of failures then something catches on. It’s the same with an indie or major – what is sellable. A bunch of Indies pop up and then suddenly a band on an indie is huge and the majors will go scoop things up like they did with Nirvana.
Loosely on the subject of Nirvana I enquire about Joe’s supposed fracas with his former label Subpop, something he quite simply and plausibly plays down.
“I just didn’t like to be signed to them anymore. I wanted to run my own label which I’ve been doing for years now. It just makes much more sense.”
Despite having an intensely genial and refreshing pop sound The Pernice Brothers have never risen above cult status.
Joe explains, “I can only talk about the US. The way you have to break really huge in America is to get on commercial radio and commercial radio is owned by a very small minority. Like a few companies own all the radio stations. The only way besides touring you can really reach a huge mass is to get into radio. It’s not like here (Britain). The US is huge. You have to get plugged in or you won’t get anywhere. It’s very difficult and expensive to get on radio. It’s not really about the style of music or what people would even like but it’s about having the opportunity to be heard by a lot of people. The only way I reach audiences is through word of mouth, through press or through live shows. Commercial radio wouldn’t touch my music because it costs too much to get it on air. You have pay and it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to do a radio campaign. Even those (college stations) are turning a little tougher to crack.”
We move onto the music itself and one of The Pernice Brothers’ greatest and most distinctive features is the almost paradoxical contrast between their shiny pop melodies and dark lyrical content.
Joe accounts, “I think I’ve always lyrically been dark. It’s not really a contrast. Musically I’ve always liked typically classical pop melodies. That’s what I respond to musically most. I guess I always try and write songs that I’d listen to myself so I guess that’s where I go and lyrically I go dark.”
But a kind of optimism always creeps through. Joe continues,
“The music is not exactly dark. That serves as an elevating force for bleak lyrics.”
As Joe very recently married I ask if that has any bearing on his music and indeed that of other artists. It’s something that Joe adamantly shakes off.
“It’s darker than ever. My wife asked me the same question. I’ve always had a fascination with the negative possibility and I don’t think that’s changed that much. Marriage is not a cure all. I hardly makes you’re issues disappear. It magnifies it your eccentricities.”
‘Yours Mine and Ours’ has a distinctly English flavour akin to The Smiths, The Cure and I ask Joe to explain.
“There was a conscious choice when we made this LP to abandon the orchestration of strings (and) do it with guitars and keyboards…It took a turn into that of the anglophile. We certainly paid some tribute to some of our favourites…New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen.”
I ask why only a handful of British bands ever translate across the Atlantic.
“It could have been about timing. When the Smiths came to America the time was just right for them. But for every band like The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure that gets big even back (there are) some bands that were as good that never had the chance.”
Constantly being around music and performing it especially on lengthy tour can sometimes tire a band of their art and Joe exemplifies the perennial need for distance to fully appreciate.
“When I get back from tour people send me a lot (of records). I collect on the road and then I go and listen to them (at home). When I’m on the road I don’t listen to music that much mostly because I’m tired. I read a good amount. Travelling in the states…there are long drives and you go through these really beautiful places. I like to look out the window a lot. You need a break from music. Playing music and being a lover of music are two different things.”
I ask if it ever gets to the point of a music loathing burnout.
“Never recording. I always love it. Even on tour I’ve done it for long enough now that I know even if you have a bad day or a bad couple of shows they pass. I’d say that 90% of the time I feel better after show than before. I can’t say that for any other job I’ve had. It really is a lot of fun. I like travelling with the guys. It’s great to go places and play music.”
While Joe is finally embarking on a long delayed honeymoon work doesn’t stop for the Pernice Brothers.
“(When) we finished this trip I’m finally going on my honeymoon. I’ve been married (for) seven months and I haven’t seen my wife that much. My wife’s meeting me in Paris and we go to Southern France and then we get back and the band leaves the next day for five weeks in America. Then I think we’ll start recording the next Pernice Bros record in June or July.”
Far from any rumours of a split the Pernice Brothers have another record in the wings.
“It’s almost done. There’s some tweaking. I leave a small percentage of stuff right to the last minute to give it a bit of excitement at the end. So we don’t know exactly what is going to be like.”
words: Dave Himelfield
(c)(p) june04 - musicdash / manchestermusic.co.uk 2004